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27 December 2023

What went right in 2023?

It’s been a long year, but there were some policy wins, too

By Spotlight

In January Rishi Sunak announced his five pledges for the UK: to halve inflation, grow the economy and create better-paid jobs across the country, see national debt fall, shorten NHS waiting lists, and pass new laws to stop small migrant boats crossing the Channel. As the year draws to a close, Sunak looks like he has failed on his own terms across most of these – though inflation dropped a steep 3.9 per cent in November (how much that is down to anything Sunak’s government did is a matter for debate). That Sunak swapped his original five pledges for new “long term” ones last month doesn’t let him off the hook, either. Overall, this year has felt more like the end of days in the current era of the Conservative Party than a year of constructive governance. And yet, 2023 still had positive moments in public policy terms. We asked leading policy thinkers to tell us: what went right in 2023?

Matt Davies, UK public policy lead, the Ada Lovelace Institute

The government’s AI safety agenda was initially criticised by many for having narrow focus on the risks of “frontier models” instead of considering how AI technologies such as algorithmic management systems and live facial recognition are already negatively impacting people and society. 

Several months later, the Bletchley Declaration, by countries attending the government’s AI Safety Summit in November, demonstrated an evolution in the government’s position. It acknowledged that AI is already causing harm in many everyday contexts and poses a broad range of risks to society. It concluded that urgent action at national and international levels is needed. 

That’s a step change from last year when “light touch” regulation was the watchword and urgency was in short supply. This momentum needs to be maintained and backed up by real enforcement of laws that already apply to AI – such as equalities and intellectual property – as well as new, enforceable protections. The government should look again at the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, which threatens to water down legal safeguards against automated decision-making. 

Experience in other high-tech sectors tells us that companies cannot be allowed to mark their own homework, but also that robust regulation can create the conditions for innovation. We’re not there yet with AI, but we’re ending 2023 with a strong platform to build from.  

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Derin Kocer, project lead, the Entrepreneurs Network

To unlock sustained growth, the UK needs to become more productive and innovative. Making full expensing permanent and the independent review of university spin-out companies were two key initiatives that will help deliver this in the long term.

Full expensing allows companies to deduct 100 per cent of their investments in new plants and technology from taxable profits. This will incentivise firms to invest more in productivity-enhancing projects. Given how low British businesses’ investment rates are, trailing Germany, France and Italy as a percentage of GDP in the past decade, this is an important step.

While full expensing will support larger, already profitable companies, the recommendations of the spin-outs review aim to increase the number of innovative start-ups coming out of British universities. It concluded that universities shouldn’t be taking enormous equity stakes and must give academic entrepreneurs more ownership of their innovations.  

As science and technology get increasingly advanced, we need specialised expertise to push things further. That’s why the UK’s leading universities can serve as the launching pads for the new generation of innovative businesses.

[See also: The government’s new immigration rules are a recipe for stagnation]

Helena Bennett, head of climate policy, Green Alliance

We saw the government backtrack significantly on environmental policy in 2023, but it did manage to pass a law mandating car manufacturers to increase the proportion of electric vehicles (EVs) they produce up to 2030. This is the policy that will make the largest emission savings under the government’s Net Zero Strategy, so it’s a big deal. This “Zero Emissions Vehicle mandate” will improve air quality and allow more people to benefit from EVs, which are cheaper to run than their polluting counterparts.

We’ve also seen progress on a couple of other policies this year, including the Clean Heat Market Mechanism – which will increase the number of heat pumps in the UK – and ensuring Ofgem has a net zero remit.

Despite poor rhetoric on net zero from senior politicians this year, evidence continues to show people want action on the climate. That the government hasn’t rolled back even further is an indication that it now understands this. After all, ministers did give a £4bn boost to green industries in the Autumn Statement. This investment isn’t large enough to be a game-changer, but it is a recognition that green industries are the future of the British economy.

Sign up to The Green Transition, our weekly newsletter on net zero-nomics

Jennifer Dixon, chief executive, the Health Foundation

It is notoriously hard for politicians and the Treasury to think much beyond a year, but for the NHS long-term planning is critically important. This year saw a big step forward with the first ever NHS long-term workforce plan to plug the gap of between 260,000-360,000 staff by 2036/37. The plan needs long-term investment to match, so let’s see if future governments stump up the cash.

The government took an unexpectedly bold approach in its policy to achieve a smoke-free generation and reduce youth vaping. The policy proposes banning tobacco sales to anyone born after 1 January 2009 starting in 2025. Tobacco is a uniquely harmful and addictive substance that warrants a highly restrictive approach. Yet action on other major health pollutants, such as ultra-processed food, is limp in contrast.

Labour’s health mission made the right noises but inevitably lacked detail. Focusing on “getting the basics right” in the NHS and improving prevention is good, but the real question is how. There will be little progress without investment, particularly in technology.

And the government woke up more fully to AI, with the Bletchley Park Summit on AI safety. Oddly there was no focus on the opportunity to use AI to transform Britain’s biggest industry – healthcare.

Danny Sriskandarajah, chief executive, the New Economics Foundation

It’s hard to point to something that has gone right this year in terms of UK policy, when the overwhelming majority of people are worse off. In that context, the Chancellor’s decision to expand government funding for early years education and childcare could be transformative. But the devil is always in the detail, and the failure to properly fund providers or tackle the workforce crisis is threatening to derail this policy before it even gets started. Most importantly, the decision to exclude the poorest children from this offer when we are seeing soaring levels of child poverty is, in my view, not only a missed opportunity but a moral failure. It’s time to invest in care as the vital infrastructure that it is

Kevin Ferriter, chief economist, Labour Together

The Bank of England deserves credit for its handling of the banking crises in spring 2023. Silicon Valley Bank UK was transferred to HSBC, with no bailout required. In the United States, meanwhile, the bailouts of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank cost $22bn.

The difference is that the post-crisis regulatory framework in the US had been undermined by Trump-era reforms. Here, the Conservatives have not yet succeeded in their attempt to undermine Bank of England independence and deregulate the financial sector, despite this being an aim of both Jeremy Hunt and Rishi Sunak. Thankfully, the Conservatives have been too divided and incompetent to achieve their aims of undermining our institutions.

Ayeisha Thomas-Smith, executive director, New Economy Organisers Network

Successful policy change often requires effective political leadership. The introduction of Ulez, London’s ultra-low emission zone, was the outstanding example of this lesson in 2023. In the coming years, Ulez will save thousands of lives from premature death due to air pollution. While there was political backlash, and lessons to be learned about the framing of public health measures, the evidence is clear: Ulez will lead to fewer harmful emissions, which means fewer hospital admissions, and fewer cases of life-changing illnesses such as asthma, heart disease and cancer. These are harms that previously fell disproportionately on working class and racialised communities. Air pollution contributes to the premature death of around 4,000 Londoners every year – Ulez is a step toward a fairer, healthier, greener London.

Ryan Jude, cabinet member for climate, ecology and culture, Westminster City Council

The government’s updated Green Finance Strategy, published among other documents on Energy Security Day in March 2023, was a positive step on the regulatory side of green finance. The document outlined key regulations that will support public and private capital to be channelled towards sustainable outcomes. These included updates on disclosure requirements for UK firms and financial institutions, policies to combat greenwashing, such as the UK Green Taxonomy, and support to encourage transition finance.

However, while the progress on green finance regulation is welcome and necessary, it is not sufficient to mobilise capital at pace. The regulatory ambition has not been accompanied by the levels of public investment required to crowd in private finance. We cannot regulate our way to net zero alone, and catalytic public finance will be required, as has been seen in the US with the Inflation Reduction Act.

Additionally, many of these key regulations have been delayed, with clarity on the timing for implementation still needed. Delivering the tools outlined in the Green Finance Strategy must come as soon as possible, with clear timelines so the market can prepare. This needs to be accompanied by increased levels of targeted public investment.

Sarah Clarke, president of the Royal College of Physicians

This year has seen the NHS strained to unprecedented levels. Treatment waiting lists reached a record high of almost 7.8 million. A root cause is too few healthcare staff to meet demand and this severe shortfall is impacting patient care. We’re seeing some light at the end of the tunnel though, with the government finally announcing the first long-term workforce plan projecting future NHS staffing requirements.

This plan includes a doubling of medical school places along with a commitment to independently verified staffing projections – something the we have long called for. It is an important first step towards a sustainably resourced NHS – however, it is just one part of the jigsaw. It is critical that we see government do more to retain the staff we currently have by creating more flexible and supportive working environments and investing in equipment and infrastructure.

The government’s recent commitment to creating a smoke-free generation is a significant stride forward for public health. Smoking remains the leading preventable cause of disease and death, imposing huge societal cost. Public support for measures including banning cigarette purchases for those born after 2009 is resounding.

[See also: We’re telling the wrong story about climate policy]

Jack Shaw, affiliated researcher, Bennett Institute for Public Policy

The government has made progress in striking devolution settlements with a number of combined authorities – or in the case of Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, building on existing settlements. There are significant limitations with the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act, but some of the devolution settlements could not have been struck without it, given the opposition to mayoralties. These changes mean more decisions will be made locally, services will be better joined up, creating more opportunity for growth and giving communities greater agency over their lives.  

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